Milwaukee Art Museum: Selected Art on Exhibit
For the Calatrava addition to the Museum as well as for other Milwaukee architecture, see my previous blog post, “Downtown Milwaukee and Its Architecture.”
I can’t identify the myth or story seen on this Classical Greek water jar, but it is an elegant 5th century B.C work.
This carved oak sculpture, with its polychromy (painting) still visible, is a product of a late medieval French workshop. Saint Barbara was a Christian martyr, whose father, a wealthy pagan, kept her locked in a tower to preserve her innocence. Note that there are three windows near the top of her tower, the third added at her request in order to represent the Trinity. Because she would not renounce her Christian faith, her father had her beheaded. He, then, was killed by lightning, and so, according to the Golden Legend (14th century), she became the patron saint of people risking sudden death, like soldiers and firefighters.
A sword and a helmet become the only attributes used to title this work as Mars, although the red-tinged light coming from outside of the frame on our right may support such an identification as well. On the other hand, that sharp, dramatic light of unknown origin, clearly reveals the chiaroscuro of Caravaggio, known as tenebrism. Honthorst was a major follower of Caravaggio, whose work he had seen in Rome. Utrecht Caravaggism was a name given to his (and other’s) work of the 1620s.
Given that Honthorst and other Dutch painters were known for portraits and genre scenes, and also thinking about another Dutchman, Rembrandt, who so often dressed his sitters in fancy hats, medals, chains and helmets, I am not so certain that Honthorst meant this bearded Dutch compatriot of his to actually represent Mars.
A German by birth, Hoffmann emigrated to America in 1932, where he became the most influential teacher of many younger American painters. Using the new European compositional ideas of Cézanne, Kandinsky, Fauvism and Cubism as a point of departure, his American painting and teaching emphasized bold color as a foundation for both expression and pictorial structure. He also believed that abstraction originates in nature, which we might infer from his title, Dew and Dusk.
Mitchell was one of the few women painters of her generation to enjoy high acclaim, and even if she mainly lived in France, she definitely is an iconic figure in early American abstraction. This work, with its bold, gestural brushwork, is typical of the branch of Abstract Expressionism known as “action painting”–the other branch being “color field painting.”
Even though this piece is Untitled, we should recall the connection Hoffmann made between abstraction and nature, and also the fact that Mitchell had stated that “I carry my landscapes around with me.”
Even as this painting shares a compositional structure with the work of certain action paintings, we also discern recognizable forms, such as the head and torso of a woman (left of center) looking out at us. Although he was inspired by Hoffmann’s painting classes,Rivers’ gestural forms are not abstract brushwork. Rather, they reveal him as a figurative artist whose work found fresh inspiration in the movement that followed Abstract Expressionism–Pop Art.
There is also much that is whimsical about Rivers’ art, which separates him from the true Abstract Expressionists, whose attitude to painting was serious and, through their particular mode of abstracted, gestural brushwork, reflected their inner psyches. Besides his use of discernible images from the external world, we have the playful whimsy of his title…whether given as It’s Raining in Huffington (Museum label) or It’s Raining, Anita Huffington (artnet listing).
Magnifying photographs on to giant canvases and often reducing his palette to blacks and whites, as here, Close monumentalized friends and family. In this case, it seems that he painted mainly with an airbrush. In other works, he would build the face or figure through small, closely-colored forms resembling pixels or a mosaic. His subject, Nancy, was a friend and painter, Nancy Graves.
Although not connected to the original Photo-Realists, Wiley uses realism, along with decorative floral backgrounds (as seen here) in large scale paintings as a way to connect his portraits of people of color with the grand tradition of 18th century European aristocratic portraits.
Sam Gilliam drapes his un-stretched canvases in various ways to capture and envelop space. In this way, he denies the stretched canvas and its implication of being a window. Instead, he invites the viewer to interact, walk around, walk through, and become part of his painting and its space.
I selected these five works of art from a special exhibit curated by Wendy Red Star (Apsáalooke), showing the work of ten Indigenous American artists. All this art has its base in photography–an intentional counter to the historical application of photography to stereotype and demean Native American people.
Opening the exhibition is this view of the Kingcome Inlet in British Colombia, the homeland of the Dzawada’enuxw Nation. Through scale and its focus solely on nature, Nicolson glorifies her ancestral lands, even if Canada does not recognize this.
From his series titled Strong Unrelenting Spirits, Jones here decorated an inkjet print of his mother with beads and thread.
Gutierrez, rejected not merely for her Indigenous native roots, but also as a trans Latinx woman, takes full control of her image as if a model on a Paris fashion magazine. She is the model, the stylist, the photographer, and the editor. As the symbols on her go-go boots openly state, she also is all woman!
Michelson, using inkjet prints of a bust of George Washington by the French Sculptor, Jean Antoine Houdon, projects photos such as a historical map (far left) including Lake Erie and a roadside historical marker by the New York State Education Department (2nd from left). His intention is to connect Washington and the Revolutionary army with the destruction of Iroquoia, his ancestral homeland, in 1779 and challenge our amnesia.
The calm, classical beauty of this composition intrigued me. What makes this a work of Indigenous American art? Certainly not the fact that Matchewais apparently works his inkjet prints with gesso, nor that his photos are cut, scratched, creased and taped, as he says, working as if a sculptor of two-dimensional work. The revealing answer is hidden, mystical: he “baptizes” his paper in water colored by rust and tobacco–elements sacred to his people.
The Grohmann Museum: the Art of Humans at Work
Located on the campus of the Milwaukee School of Engineering, the Grohmann Museum celebrates the “evolution of human work” with over 1,700 sculptures, paintings and art on paper from 1580 to the present day. The building was built in in 1924 as an automobile dealership, then taken over by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago in the 1980s before being purchased in 2005 and radically renovated to serve the museum.
Although inspired by original smaller-scale sculptures in the museum collection, these larger worker figures share a stylistic similarity, which is appropriate for their function as culminations of the architectural pilasters on which they stand. In this photograph most of them face in to what is a rooftop sculpture garden: however, they can be turned as well to face other directions. This placement of the human figure as a significant compositional element of the architecture, creates an interesting link between the Grohmann and ancient Greek temples.
Located on the ceiling directly above the entrance vestibule and employing all the illusionistic, perspective techniques of late-15th to early 16th Italian Renaissance artists (such as Andrea Mantegna, for example), this mural juxtaposes the inspiration of gods at work to the more prosaic forms of labor directly below. Besides Vulcan (seen, hammer in hand, at the top), the five figures below represent some of the great inventors of later history: Leonardo da Vinci, Johannes Gutenberg, Thomas Edison, Marie Curie, and Albert Einstein.
Located on the floor of the entrance vestibule to the museum, this mosaic leans on the tradition of ancient Roman floor mosaics. Its five main images focus on individual manual labor (clockwise from bottom): a fieldworker, a foundry worker, a blacksmith, a spinner, and a miner.
Built on an industrial site west of the Milwaukee River (6th and Canal Streets) in what is called the Menomonee Valley in 2008, the museum has everything a Harley Hog could wish for: over 450 motorcycles and hundreds of thousands of artifacts.
A small section of a wall displaying 100 gas tanks.
Some Public Sculpture (and One Mural)
Solomon Juneau was a fur trader whose work encompassed the Milwaukee area from 1819 on. He made his home on the east side of the Milwaukee River in what now would be East Wisconsin Avenue and North Water Street. He is the founder of this area, known as Juneautown, and developed it into a major trading center for the fur market. Juneau was elected Milwaukee’s first mayor when it officially became a city in 1846.
One of two reliefs on the monument, this shows Juneau with Native Americans, most likely the Potawatomi and Menominee tribes with whom he had cultivated good relationships.
Whitney depicts the young Icelandic explorer, Leif Eriksson, scanning the horizon some time around the year 1000. What he saw may have been Vinland, or possibly a Norse settlement in Newfoundland. It certainly wasn’t Milwaukee, or Wisconsin, or any part of what is now the United states of America. So, what is he doing here in Juneau Park?
The answer is Norse Sagas, which had been translated into English and became popular after Viking ships were discovered (in 1867 and 1880). In response, Anne Whitney made a Leif Eriksson statue in 1887 for Boston and a Milwaukee patron, Mrs. Joseph Gilbert, quickly had a copy made for this site.
The chairwoman of the Service Star Legion design committee may have groused that “not one [of the designs] appealed to us,” but I was instantly drawn to this piece of Art Deco sculpture and am delighted that they selected it.
Jacques Marquette was a French Jesuit missionary who founded Sault Sainte Marie in 1668, Michigan’s first European settlement.
Three letter carriers, a woman, a white man and a Black man, stand “for all who have delivered for America in rain. sleet and snow.”
Interestingly, this is a Union sculpture: on its granite base we read the tribute to the National Association of Letter Carriers, “founded across Plankinton Avenue from this site on August 30, 1889.”
From the south face of the pedestal, we read:
“This monument is a gift of the Grand Army of the Republic, the school children, workingmen and citizens in general of the city of Milwaukee as an expression of their love, loyalty of country and reverence for a great emancipator.”
Edelman claims to have been inspired by Atlas holding up the celestial sphere, although New Pink Planet is a torus whose circumference barely touches two triangular plinths. Its title refers to a recent NASA discovery of a pink planet (GJ 504b) located fifty-seven light years from earth and four times the size of Jupiter.
In this sculpture, Druecke takes over the recognizable form and composition of a historical marker or commemorative plaque (such as might be commissioned by the National Park service). In place of prosaic historical description, however, he presents us with a poetic paean to nearby Lake Michigan, where generations have gathered from the early Anishinaabe to the present citizens of Milwaukee.
As the Lake is part of “the world spinning underfoot,” to quote the final words on this side of his sculpture, so his marker succumbs to this dynamic and appears to be sinking.
This of several pieces owned by Northwestern Mutual on display in its garden park just off Wisconsin Avenue. Given that Roxy Paine’s large, stainless steel trees are often seen as symbols of life, growth and opportunity, Cleft is a fitting piece for a major corporation that offers insurance, financial planning, and investment services.
Located the the east end of Wisconsin Avenue and aligned with the footbridge to the Milwaukee Museum of Art, the Di Suvero sculpture punctuates the city’s main drag, which otherwise had dissipated into Lake Michigan. If it obscures the Calatrava Museum now, realize that it preceded Calatrava’s addition by two decades.
This mural, over fifty feet high, was completed hours before the Milwaukee Bucks took on the Boston Celtics in game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinal. Giannis (aka. the “Greek Freak”) faces west and the downtown (as well as Fiserv Forum, the game venue).
Being on foot and with time limits that restricted me to the main downtown areas, I just never encountered other public murals. However, Milwaukee has an abundance of interesting murals. Here are a few of them.
Some Public Sculpture Adjacent to the Riverwalk
Located on the east edge of the Milwaukee River on the grounds of the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, Laureate appears to be a figure composed of columns, coiled rope and harp strings (although the latter also resembles a lectern).
This composition of five forms both states the obvious, that its aggregate and lyrical rising form transcends its separate elements. Apparently, as well, it is inspired by Miles Davis and his quartet, whose music rises above that of the individual instruments. Of course, the parallels between jazz and abstraction cannot be avoided.
I have no idea who made this assemblage of found objects, nor its title. Nevertheless, it is one of my favorite pieces.
The story of five ducklings and their mother in a canoe is best quoted from a local article:
“In 1945 a short story in the local paper about a mallard duck nesting under the Wisconsin Avenue Bridge went on to make national headlines. ‘Gertie,’ as she was affectionately named, laid nine eggs and became an overnight celebrity, as hundreds of visitors stopped by daily to check in on the hatchlings. Gertie and her five surviving ducklings were eventually moved to the windows of a Milwaukee department store for public viewing before being released to the Juneau Park Lagoon on the lakefront.”
Downtown Riverwalk Pavement Art
Square bronze plaques in low relief and embedded in the concrete pavement can be found on both sides of the Riverwalk. The plaques, eighteen different designs in all, were selected from drawings submitted by local elementary school children and then cast in bronze. Each plaque expresses an individual student-artist’s take on the Milwaukee River.
Too small for the plaque to be seen clearly, this photograph shows the proximity between plaque and river.
It’s all here: the River, both Riverwalks, east side tall buildings, and sailboat with fisherman.
This composition is one-half River with fish and two boats, one-half city buildings, one of which is a fantastical tower whose occupant takes in the scene.
A canoeist poses in the foreground before a background of sun, a tree, and a riverbank of tall reeds: where on the Milwaukee River might this be?
Here is another wonderful fantasy showing a meandering River with fish and turtles, a sun, a sunbather, and both banks full of trees and flowers.
This may be my favorite one. A girl looks out from the lower-right Riverwalk. Two more abstracted people stand on the upper-left Riverwalk. A girl is at the oars of a rowboat. And, if my guess is right, those two broken planes with small oblongs on them are the two sections of a drawbridge roadway with cars.
Southern Section of the Riverwalk
As one heads south past the Third Ward, the downtown Riverwalk turns from concrete to more traditional wood. Nineteen of the next (and final) twenty photographs are what I will call World History at One’s Feet. Nobody I talked to, even Milwaukee people who ought to know, could tell me anything about them. Then, too, because I encountered this section in the last hour of my stay in Milwaukee, I was forced to work against the glare of the sun.
This may be unreadable, but it shows the scale and extent of these history boards.
These history boards start in 1842, as can be seen here. This leads me to think that whoever conceived of creating this Riverwalk section intended to connect World History at One’s Feet to the historical beginnings of Milwaukee as a city. As the City Seal (below) indicates, Milwaukee was incorporated in 1846.
World History at One’s Feet, January 1842. Each month is represented on one board. Each board contains engraved text from selected days of its month–not every day, of course–but clearly a day and event that caught the interest of the person(s) making the selections.
Here, for example, we read that in February of 1843, the English Physicist Joule determined his formula for connecting work to heat. In the same month, Daniel Decatur Emmett composed the song Dixie and performed it in minstrel shows.
Take your pick: March of 1843 Congress alloted $30,000 to Milwaukee harbor development; May of 1843 heavy rains flooded the Erie Canal, destroying a bridge and dislodging a lock; September 1843 Amsterdam opened Tivoli Gardens, “one of the first amusement parks ever built.”
All in July 1851: in Sheenwald, Switzerland, “Carl Franz Bally begins the Bally Shoe Factory;” because alcohol was prohibited at the Great Exhibition in London (the Crystal Palace), Schweppes & Co. “profited tremendously;” the Missouri Pacific railway laid track in St. Louis; Sioux Indian Chieftans ceded their lands.
I leave you to peruse the next six photographs.
I couldn’t pass over this historical entry: who knew that Karl Elsner patented the Swiss Army Knife on June 12, 1897.
I leave the next three photos for you.
This entry from January of 1937 particularly interests me: “A German court orders that the government may remove children from families that do not teach Nazi ideology.” Something about this brings up parallels to what is happening in our country today (even in Wisconsin). Let us hope that our present situation finds its parallel in Karl Marx’s famous statement: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”
Have at it. I hope that you enjoyed this. And, remember to look down, not only out and up!